Richard Barnard explains how a primary multi academy trust gains maximum benefit from its budget

Robinswood Multi Academy Trust currently consists of two two-form entry primary schools and is about to expand by opening a third school. One of the founding schools in particular, Robinswood primary, has long had strong financial systems led by governors to ensure best value for our pupils.

Best value has become even more important since we became a multi academy trust (MAT). Key to this was appointing a qualified and experienced business manager and giving him clear responsibilities and duties based on strong internal control checks. We also appointed external auditors who understood the reporting arrangements for academies.

Small finance committee

We have a small finance committee consisting of three governors along with the executive headteacher and the business manager, which I chair. I was formerly a senior finance manager in a local authority and have served on the local schools forum. I meet the businesses manager on a monthly basis to monitor budget performance and to authorise payments as required under the MAT’s financial procedures.

The committee meets at least once a term and more often in the budget setting period and when the accountants are drawing up the final accounts. Workload has not increased significantly since becoming a MAT as one committee serves both schools. All staff are employed by the trust and there are separate cost centres for each school. As we move to a third school we are reviewing our finance system and staffing structure, using the professional advice of our auditors to help us.

‘A key focus for governors is ensuring that budget plans are in line with established strategic direction'

The governing board uses an annual skills audit to ensure there are governors with appropriate skills on the finance committee. We check that members have experience in budget setting, management and control, and delegation of duties in relation to the finance function. Where necessary members are given training in monitoring and evaluation of the schools’ financial processes and linking these to school improvement priorities. We also ensure members are kept up to date with current financial developments.

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Funding streams

Being aware of available funding streams has proved invaluable over the years to help provide resources for pupils; for example lottery funds provided theatre facilities, “flood relief” funding enhanced our outdoor education provision, and one of our partners (Barnardo’s) helped provide a community worker to support our families.

A key focus for governors is ensuring that budget plans are in line with established strategic direction and clearly linked to school improvement priorities and rigorous self-evaluation. For example two years ago we had an influx of pupils from other schools in year 5. It soon became clear that as a group their attainment was poor and often below the level they had achieved in year 2. As we had created a surplus through savings from the appointment of an executive headteacher over the two schools we were able to appoint an additional teacher to focus on the outcomes for this group – with success by the time they left year 6.

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Our budget planning is based on an outline forward financial plan for three to five years with a focus on accurate estimate of pupil numbers and staff costs. Other key activities include an annual review of benchmarking data; regular review of all contracts to ensure best value; annual review of staff salaries and wages so that rewards relate to school improvement targets; regular review of banking arrangements including cash handling, investments and security; annual review of pupil premium allocations.

NGA encourages all governing boards to use our skills audit to help them identify any skills and knowledge they still need to deliver their functions effectively!

We evidence that governors scrutinise and challenge financial management of the school by ensuring all appropriate actions are included in minutes and reports in a succinct but positive manner and signing all documents with appropriate notes e.g. monthly monitoring statements, authorisation of payments, cash flow records, contract approval and virement approvals.

Tips for governors on the finance committee

•    recruit and retain a top rate and appropriately trained business manager

•    ensure at least one of the committee has relevant school financial and budget experience

•    appoint an external auditor with a track record in education (including academies where relevant)

•    think ahead, especially in relation to known commitments and projected pupil numbers

•    establish secure internal control systems

Richard Barnard is chair of Robinswood Multi Academy Trust in Gloucester. 

This article first appeared in Governing Matters magazine. Governing Matters is published by the National Governors' Association (NGA) for its members. For more information about joining the NGA visit: www.nga.org.uk/join

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